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Preparing for a Catastrophe

A portable charger for your cellphone and a radio with its own power supply can help get you through a natural disaster.

October 02, 2005|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

As we've learned only too well in the last few weeks, the key to making it through a natural disaster is preparation. That's why I've carefully packed emergency kits for work, home and the car, appropriately stocked with gear, canned goods, important documents and water.

Right. And I floss after every meal.

The truth is that like many, I'm not really ready for fires, earthquakes or other natural misfortunes.

If you're in the same boat, consider this: There are a couple of simple technologies that would go a long way toward getting you through the next disaster: a portable cellphone charger and a radio with its own power supply.

The ability to use a cellphone to call for help can be a lifesaver. (Of course, the entire cellphone network can be knocked out in a disaster, but it's often up and running long before land-line service is repaired.)

What do you do if your cellphone is dead and there's no electrical service for recharging? There are some inexpensive ways around this.

Cellboost, a disposable battery charger for cellphones, came on the market in 2003 from Compact Power Systems in Woodland Hills. About the size of a 9-volt battery, it's plugged directly into the phone. After a couple of minutes, a dead battery receives enough juice that it can be used for a short period.

For maximum effect, a turned-off phone can be charged with a Cellboost for up to an hour. Results vary greatly with the type of phone. A standard Motorola model has a battery reserve meter that ranges from 0 to 6. A test of the charger got it up to 4. This was good for several hours of operation, depending on how much the phone was used.

However, a Cellboost charge to a Palm Treo smart phone, which measures battery charge in percentages, garnered a reading of only 3%. This was only enough for a couple of quick calls.

Cellboost, which costs about $5 for many cellphones, is available for Motorola, Nokia, LG and Samsung models. The $6 smart-phone version works with the Treo and Research in Motion's BlackBerry models.

Reusable but requiring much more work is the SideWinder from IST of Bozeman, Mont. This device, which looks like a small fishing reel, is a hand-cranked charger that comes with an assortment of plug-in tips to fit a variety of cellphones.

It's simple to use: You plug the tip into the phone and commence cranking. Almost instantly a battery-dead Motorola phone sprang to life in testing, and after three minutes it showed a charge of 2 on its 0-to-6 meter. That was good for about three hours of standby time -- less if I would have made or taken a call.

The tips that come with the SideWinder, which costs $24.95, fit most Motorola, Kyocera and Nokia phones. Some additional tips are available for an extra charge, but they're not available for the Treo and some other late models.

After a cellphone, the next-most important device to have in an emergency would be a radio to learn what's happening and what to do next. But you would need a radio that doesn't rely on everyday power sources. Even a battery-powered unit may not be enough if the batteries fail and you have no replacements.

Eton Corp. of Palo Alto offers a hand-cranked, multiuse device, the Eton FR-300. The AM/FM/weather radio also includes TV-channel audio, a cellphone charger, a flashlight and an electronic siren, all powered by the hand crank, although it also operates on AA batteries.

Some parts of the FR-300, which costs $50, work better than others.

The hand-crank mechanism is relatively efficient: Three minutes of cranking produced a respectable 50 minutes of radio play.

The TV audio feature was quite welcome. It can receive local broadcast Channels 2 to 13. And the weather radio picks up local forecasts and warnings from the National Weather Service, although it won't work in all areas.

The flashlight, which uses LED bulbs, is not strong but could be used to do some reading. As for the siren, a spokeswoman for the company said it could help rescuers find an FR-300 user stuck in a collapsed building.

The biggest disappointment was the built-in cellphone charger. After three minutes of cranking, I got such a tiny charge into a Motorola phone that its battery meter still read 0.

Another qualm: The plastic hand-crank mechanism seemed flimsy.

But overall, the reception choices and charging efficiency made the FR-300 a good choice.

The Freeplay Summit radio ($70), which also has a hand crank, is a more substantial unit, although it's solely a radio with AM, FM and shortwave bands.

The shortwave reception might be handy if the disaster was nationwide and you wanted to pick up overseas broadcasts. But in a local emergency, I'd rather be able to pick up local TV and weather information than the BBC.

The best feature of the Summit, made by Freeplay Energy of London, is its solar battery. I tested it on a cloudy day, with full sunlight peaking through only intermittently. Still, only 10 minutes' exposure provided enough charge for two minutes of radio play.

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